Calvocoressi’s third collection Rocket Fantastic brought me back to my body in a way no other book has. Calvocoressi accomplishes this by implementing the musical segno symbol, and advises readers to pronounce the symbol simply as an “intake of breath when a body is unlimited in its possibilities.” Hunched over the book and scribbling in the margins as I am wont to do, I found myself easing up. Breath allowed me to be more open to Calvocoressi’s poems and their captivating strangeness.
The segno appears as a pronoun for the Bandleader, a character with a, “confluence of genders in varying degrees, not either/or nor necessarily both in equal measure.”
The Bandleader refuses to be defined, instead opting for flux. Identity is like weather in these poems. It shifts, evolves, returns.
Foxes, stags, insects, winding trails and stars populate these poems. Like identity, these creatures and phenomena are unpredictable. They are in turns terrifying, comforting, and mysterious. These poems resist neat categorization, and open readers up to a multiplicity of identities and states.
I interviewed Calvocoressi via email, and we discussed everything from poems inspired by nystagmus, getting loose and double, and how falling apart helped Calvocoressi complete the collection.
Liz Von Klemperer: When I first emailed you I got a bounce back with the subject “Going to California! Writing a new book!” You say in the body of the email that you’re resting, teaching, and writing a memoir and a novel. Sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate! How has California been?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: My plate is very nicely full! It’s one of the reasons I’m responding to this a solid month and a half after coming back from California, which I’m sorry about and really appreciate your patience for.
California was really good and also a little sad in the way it can be sad to go back to a place you never thought you’d have to leave. My partner Angeline and I lived there from 2005-2012 while she got her doctorate. I fell for LA hook line and sinker and really thought of it as (finally) having found a home place. But. The fact is we just couldn’t afford to stay there. And I got what has turned out to be a really wonderful job at UNC Chapel Hill. Which is great and didn’t make leaving less hard. We have lots of friends and family out in LA.
So it was really good to go back. I’m someone who has had to leave a lot of homes in my life. That sense of not having home, of always knowing I’ll have to leave, is actually probably pretty central to my poetics. How does one find a voice when the registers and inflections and coded timbres are always changing? I have always been good at sounding like others while also never really fitting in. I have had to really fight to feel at home in myself and in my own voice.
California was hotter than I remembered and everyone (really everyone) was talking about how expensive it is. People I’d never heard talk like that seem concerned.
I loved being near the ocean and seeing friends and family. And I also missed North Carolina a lot. I missed my more rural life and my small town and the quality of silence I have there.
I hadn’t been to CA in awhile because it is a place I felt I’d failed at. I’d never done enough to be able to stay. I didn’t feel that way this time. I felt like it’s so gorgeous and I love my friends and family there. And also like maybe it’s not really the place for me anymore except as an ardent visitor.
Onto the book: I’m interested in the recurring phrase, getting “loose and double.” It’s a meditative state but also acts as a prelude to violence. You say in the poem You can hold a duck down on a rock and cut its head off that it is to: “let one part of you go and let the other break its head with the stone.” In There’s a point where it all gets still, it’s to become “Still and silent like someone diving in the pool.” It’s an elusive phrase, which is what I like about it. So, when’s the last time you got loose and double? What happened after?
So, there are all kinds of levels and veils in the book. One is that it’s the first book where I’ve really dealt with my nystagmus, a neurological/visual disability that I have had all my life. Nystagmus results in the constant spasm of the eyes. You have balance difficulties and depth perception stuff. Headaches, fatigue, some kinds of anxiety sometimes. A lot of things!
Many people with nystagmus can’t drive or read or do various physical things (though many can). I, for instance, didn’t walk until I was three and then it took a long time to do stuff like stairs. I still have trouble with stuff like that depending on how tired I am.
I was deeply lucky that I was sent (weekly) from age 7 to 18 to a holistic vision therapist. We would do eye exercises and really work to get me to a place where I could read and drive and function. It saved my life. One thing he would say to me was to “get loose and double”, which meant to stop trying so hard to focus and just let my eyes go a little sometimes.
When you have nystagmus you have something called the “null point.” That’s the spot where your eyes are at their most still. Mine is up and to the right. I could sit in that spot all day, it’s clear but it also feels like a trance. Absolute relaxation and ecstasy. Getting loose and double means letting my eyes just naturally go to the space where relaxation and trance and clarity (of many kinds) exists naturally in my body. Lorine Neidecker is the other poet I know who had nystagmus. I think you can feel the null point in the poems. That openness and also the potential.
I’ve always been interested how people can all look toward the same point and experience it totally differently. And how every experience has many sides. So getting loose and double is an incredible mode of health and well-being for me. But I liked the idea that the phrase could be an invitation to all kinds of letting go. It’s the God spot we all have. And what manner of God each of us is probably depends on a lot of things, including the moment at hand.
The last time I got loose and double was a few moments ago when I was disappointed about something. And so I just breathed and let myself go. And the cicadas came into my ears with their songs and I felt my anger and also my love and joy and I let it all go. I sort of hovered for a bit outside of it. And then I had to force myself back into the world and that was good too. To come back.
I love how you replace the Bandleader’s pronouns with breath. Can you walk me through the origin of this idea? How did you find the symbol you use for the Bandleader’s pronouns (I can’t find it on Word)? Did you go looking, or did you see it and just know?
The symbol itself was found by the press and I approved it and love it very much. It’s a musical symbol. What I like about it is its body that feels open and feminine and masculine all at once. It feels easily experienced as breath, which is what I wanted. Also, it is open to unknowing. Which is essential to me and my experience of my body.
This book went through so many drafts. And for a long time it was so locked down in its story. As I was at the time. My biological story, my familial narrative, my capitalist body, all of it. I was dying on some level. I was in real trouble from about 2008-2013.
And a lot of that was because I could not let go of various narratives about myself. And also because I felt like I had to understand what I was doing and what my body was. And yet. When I was a child I believed I was a boy. Until I was 7 and the nuns told me that if I wanted to go to what was then the best school available to me I would have to stop using the boys’ bathroom and I would also have to be able to climb and descend stairs without assistance. To me these two things are very linked. I had to redefine my understanding of my body in order to do things like get to go to a “good” school. I had to push my “self” into other people’s definition of health. This lived with me in ways I worked with and ways I also suppressed for a really long time. The act of forcing myself to be a vessel that suited people became a deep theme in my life.
Around 2008 I began a period of being very broke and very locked into a certain narrative of myself. It was also the same time I started working on Rocket Fantastic. I was all of a sudden somehow obsessed with touring and being busy as a sign of…I don’t know…success? Fame?. Whatever it was, I was misguided and I ended up treating the people I cared about most pretty badly. I was super selfish. I made bad choices and bad friendships that hurt the people who actually cared about me no matter who I was.
In 2012 I went to Marfa, TX on an extraordinary and incredible healing fellowship. In the first days I realized that Rocket Fantastic, as I had conceived it, was sort of a disaster. I had locked it into one set story. The way I was using persona was so forced and so mannered, which is not a way I had ever thought of my poems. Which is to say, they had been weak in all kinds of ways but not that way.
I realized I had a choice. I could give up on the book and start something new in those six weeks. Or. I could stare out into that huge sky and let myself fall apart and feel the pain of all that I’d lost and all that I’d done and then I could just let the book open to me. I really felt in my deepest self that Rocket Fantastic was meant to be something extraordinary. I don’t mean for other people (though that would be great). I mean I knew in my deepest self that it was meant to teach me something and to be a path to deep healing and a new vision of myself in the world.
This is a long answer. But. During that time and in the years following I let the book speak to me. I let the things I thought I needed to know in a poem (and in my life) fall away:
Who is speaking to whom?
For what purpose?
Through what mask?
Those had been my foundations in poems and, in some ways, in life. I stripped it all away. Character and time and dates and finally the pronoun for my desired and best and worst self. The Bandleader is the vessel with the symbol because the Bandleader is (to me) the shape of my desire in any given moment. My gender, my sex, my economic status, my __________. If I am comfortable in my unknowing, in letting the vessel of my desires for myself and others live in a space of openness and questioning then I do no harm, I am just open. When I try and lock it down. Or when I try to use my vessel to lock others down. Then I do great harm. To myself and to the world. This is only true for me. Or I am only comfortable saying these things about myself. The symbol is also my absolute belief that anyone attempting to legislate my body and what I call myself intends to do me harm.
So the pronouns fell away. And I started reading for it when I gave readings. Which feels super intimate and I won’t always do it. But I like to. I sound different every time. And some people will think it’s foolish or a trick I imagine. But that’s okay. It’s taken me 35 years to get my vessel back to the place I allowed myself in childhood. I’m not conforming it to anyone’s desires ever again.
What is it like to read these poems out loud? How do you express the symbol? How long of a pause do you take? What are audience reactions?
It’s liberating and very frightening. Sometimes it’s embarrassing and almost too intimate. Sometimes I won’t do it if I don’t feel safe enough. It’s hard to do when I give a reading with other people.
But it’s also incredible. At my last reading people starting snapping during the breaths and also making sounds of excitement and pleasure. I would love that to always be true: stop listening to me and just consider a gate opened where we can all make our sound. I think if we all made our sound (I mean all of us, even the most wracked with hatred, maybe especially them) we would probably all break either in sorrow or joy and then the world could be rebuilt. I do think that.
I’ve yet to have anyone make fun of me, which of course is the old fear.
In terms of the pauses, I don’t know…it changes. I think of it as becoming the gate to myself. And that takes more and less time.
The Bandleader is a complicated figure, as whose is intimate but distant. Whose is compared to a Stag, which is not only a male deer but also a term for someone who is comes to a social gathering without a partner. At the same time, whose is the narrator’s lover. How did this character come about? How did whose develop?
I love that you ask about “whose” because nobody has done that yet! And I think that’s been just as important to me as the symbol. In some ways maybe more. So thank you!
Whose most approximates my own feeling of identifying my sex and/or my gender. For me (and I do want to always say this only me speaking for myself…I am an enemy to those who force any manner of identification on bodies other than their own) “whose” is a word and idea that is inherently a question. It connotes looking and searching. But looking or searching for a specific person, so the clarity of the individual with the openness of a question.
I was just looking at the definition and saw this:
Old English hwæs, genitive of hwā ‘who’ and hwæt ‘what.’
Yes. And so like the sound I make when I breathe the symbol. And containing the WHO and the WHAT. Which I think is the closest thing to my poetics and my self.
In terms of the actual figure of the Bandleader. The Bandleader is different things depending on the day. The Bandleader is simply the animal being itself without being good or bad (another big theme in the book…animals just being animals). The Bandleader is uncontainable and unattainable and can do terrible damage if you let it rule your life. The Bandleader is pleasure and intimacy like one never imagined. And the Bandleader is without a soul. Or the Bandleader is the soul outside of need. The Bandleader is pure hunger and ambition. Or none of these things.
I guess that’s an unhelpful answer but…the Bandleader is also a mystery to me. The Bandleader is of me and also can be the thing I want more than anything that makes me entirely alien to myself. It’s important I keep the question of the Bandleader open. Then the Bandleader can be an energy of great good instead of being a force that lends to the destruction of the world.